I last read “Lord of the Rings” ten years ago, so I’m due a reread. But I remember the stories well, perhaps thanks to the movies more than anything else. Most especially I remember the contrasts, the changes from the books to the movies. So this post is about what I still carry with me from Tolkien’s fantasy epic ten years later.
- STORIES MATTER.
They inspire and teach, and we as writers have a responsibility in what we write. Just think of what Sam remembers, the lessons he took from the stories he was told and how those stories shaped him:
“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing… this shadow. Even darkness must pass.”
- CULTURAL DIFFERENCES ARE NOT AS IMPORTANT AS OUR SHARED HUMANITY AND WHAT WE ALL INTRINSICALLY KNOW ABOUT LIFE AND ITS VALUE.
Every reader is different. We come from different backgrounds, and we might like different characters or the same characters for different reasons. I might get something different from a book by focusing on a different aspect of it than you. But humanity is humanity and the big stuff is the stuff we share in common:
“Eomer said, ‘How is a man to judge what to do in such times?’ ‘As he has ever judged,’ said Aragorn. ‘Good and evil have not changed since yesteryear, nor are they one thing among Elves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.”
- WE ALL MUST WRITE WITH A VISION.
Some people need or prefer that vision to be clearer than others before they start writing. Some writers prefer to plan more than others, while others don’t need a concrete “plan” or outline to be sure of and secure in their vision. But every writer needs a vision.
It could not be clearer from reading “Lord of the Rings” that Tolkien had a vision, one more developed than most writers probably ever develop. From the concreteness and complexity of Middle Earth’s landscapes, to its various cultures, to its detailed history, to the intersecting subplots and overall story arc of the trilogy, no one can read “Lord of the Rings” without understanding that Tolkien had a vision, regardless of whether a reader gets swept up in that vision the way I did or not.
- A CHARACTER DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LOUD TO BE MEMORABLE.
Samwise Gamgee is such an unobtrusive figure. He’s the quietest of the four hobbit characters. He’s not especially witty or intelligent. He’s not a warrior. But he is one of my favorite characters in the Lord of the Rings and one of the first ones I remember when I think about the trilogy. He epitomizes quiet strength, faithful support, and courage in the midst of undeniable fear that I admire (and not without envy.) I could learn a lot from Sam’s unstudied and soft wisdom. He is an amazing character.
I love Sam for the same reasons I have always loved Beth from “Little Women.” Both are great reminders that a great character doesn’t have to be loud or aggressive (or even all that assertive). A character doesn’t have to run from place to place or activity to activity to be memorable and to leave a mark.
- STORY STRUCTURE IS CRITICAL, SO CONSIDER DIFFERENT ARRANGEMENTS.
One of the most interesting differences between the book and movie versions of the LotR involves story structure. In the last two installments of the trilogy, the books are separated into two parts; each part is a huge block that covers the activities of different sets of characters.
The movies cut back and forth between the separate groups, rather than keep the “block” structure of the novels. We’ll have one scene with Frodo and Sam, then the next with Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli. Then back to Frodo, etc.
Each structure works well, considering the medium and the goals. Tolkien was a man of faith and wanted to write a series that made people think about philosophical issues: good and evil, the nature of man, the value and source of virtue. His block structure lends itself to this because it keeps the reader immersed in one group’s journey for an extended period of time. The reader is forced to delve deep into that set of characters’ temptations and problems. Then, only once per book, there is a shift and the process repeats itself with a different group of characters.
The movies are more interested in entertainment. Also, the visual element of the films, which are unspeakably moving and beautiful, is critical. That visual element benefits from the frequent shifts in scenery that occur when the narrative jumps here and there and back again. Also, the shifts provide mini-cliffhangers and keep viewers constantly engaged in plot in a way the books don’t seek to do.